No presidential candidate will claim that America isn’t great. That kind of heresy would be political suicide. No matter what party they have pledged allegiance to, anyone running for our nation’s highest office will proudly proclaim that America is great and always has been. Then they will tell you how we can make it better because while our nation has a history of greatness, the problem is we still aren’t good enough. That’s where political ambition comes in.
America is great, so why aren’t we good?
De Tocqueville suggested that our greatness depends on goodness. We don’t hear much about the fundamental goodness that underlies our values, though political nods to the greater good power many of our national decisions for better and for worse. Some of the most contentious, hot button issues like immigration, LGBT rights, and climate control are attempts to take America’s goodness to the next level whether or not we agree that these things are in our best interest (see: When Is By the People, for the People Wrong?).
The GOP chose the Fourth of July for an address about protecting the things that make America great. It turned out to be a warning about security threats and federal funding. Government spending doesn’t make America great, but Texas Rep. Will Hurd did make one simple comment during his speech that lies at the core of our greatness:
Of course, we’re fortunate to live here in the United State of America, a country where you can work hard and be anything you want to be.1
Being able to work hard and get ahead is a good thing. How we get there defines the current dialogue over what makes America good.
Restore, recreate, or revolt?
Marco Rubio wants a “new American century.”2 That’s not good enough for Bernie Sanders. He wants a revolution.3 Rand Paul wants to “unleash the American dream” and bring us freedom.4 Hillary Clinton wants to be our champion (see: Change America? Pander to the Bottom.). Does it speak to America’s greatness that when we go to the Internet to find out what our presidential candidates stand for we are immediately faced with a request for contributions and our personal information? The goodness of money, apparently, is at the root of greatness.
How much should we pay for American values?
If America is great then it is our values that make us good. How much are those values worth and which ones are worth spending on? It depends on who you ask.
No matter how much politicians like to deny political stereotypes, they are for the most part reliable and true. Social spending is the Holy Grail for Democrats. Republicans favor investing in business for top down prosperity. Neither of these things makes America great, but the ways these types of spending are finessed questions our goodness.
Equal opportunity, hard work, and prosperity are easily manipulated for political advantage. The liberal party line claims opportunity is denied on the basis of race, sexual preference, and economic status. Hard work can’t be rewarded unless the government intervenes, but prosperity can be secured for America’s underclass if we spend enough money in the right places.
In a country that values individualism, charges of oligarchy5 and elitism and demands to divest the upper class of a greater share of its wealth run counter to the liberty we claim to believe in. Bernie Sanders showcased the Declaration of Independence on his Senate website for the Fourth of July, but there is also a call to action against billionaires backed by these inflammatory remarks:
Our nation cannot survive morally or economically when so few have so much while so many have so little. We need a tax system which asks the billionaire class to pay its fair share of taxes and which reduces the obscene degree of wealth inequality in America,” Sanders said.6
Read those words one more time. Then ask yourself why a candidate who truly wants to make America a better place would link wealth to obscenity and then ask on his campaign website that you donate to his presidential ambitions before he even gets to the reasons he would be a good leader.7
This is why America is great
There will always be Americans who succeed no matter what. Our values make sure that happens.
Freedom and liberty are fundamental to what makes America great. How we protect these values is what makes us good or not so good. When a presidential candidate speaks his mind and the country responds with sanctions (see: Free Country Means You Had Better Agree, or Else), freedom is undermined. When a politician charges that we are living under an oligarchy and wants to be president so he can pass laws to divest Americans of their wealth, our liberty is jeopardized.
America is a fundamentally good place because Americans, for the most part, believe in values that inspire goodness. When we are convinced that the good things we hold true like liberty and individualism aren’t so good we risk losing our greatness.
There is not a politician born who knows better than the people what is good for this country. To our nation’s detriment, those who lust for the reins of power in the name of greatness too often show just how little they know about goodness.